For Anne Sexton, Camino de Santiago, Spain
Picked clean as a bleached sheet, a pony skull
nested in the grass on the side of the path,
eyes dull. On hill slopes, the ponies prance
and bleat, unaware they are alive only to be killed–
Viande de cheval, a common dish in this village.
In the monastery at Roncesvalles a row of skulls
arcs under a spotlight, bones of pilgrims
discovered in catacombs beneath the stone chapel,
an ancient hospital, as in hostel, or hospice,
a medieval clinic for bread and wine, respite
from vagaries of torrential rains, mud, late May snows.
At vespers, my new friend and I enter the church
with the others for the pilgrim’s blessing.
Two days ago, a man died of a heart attack
on the way down the valley–you never know.
Kerry’s strong from hiking the Himalayas
and the Pacific Crest. She tells me not to look
at the anti-abortion pamphlets with photos
of blurry fetuses on vestibule tables.
She tells me her wife is a rogue priest,
ordained in secret by three bishops who risked
excommunication. The basilica blazes
with tall white candles, armfuls of lilies,
carved effigies of saints lacquered in gold leaf.
Three priests in white gowns reach their arms
toward vaulted ceilings like bodily conduits of God,
amanuenses of the divine. They burn incense
and chime bells to conjure archangels.
They summon the holy ghost, pour it
into a gold chalice, and gulp. Above the priests
floats a gilded statue of Mary, Mother of God.
She is too innocent for me, untouched
as she was, or I am too sullied for her.
I need a blessing, but need is not quite belief.